30th September 1979: 30th Anniversary of Chinese Canadian Activism

September 28th, 2009 by Staff

The Edmonton protest march against W5, January 26,1980

The Edmonton protest march against W5, January 26,1980

Chinese Canadians began a new chapter of political and social action on 30th September 1979. Here is a digest of the events thirty years ago described by Anthony B. Chan in his book Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1983). Chinese Canadians today can still learn many lessons from the Anti-W5 social movement. Editor.

On September 30, 1979, the CTV television network’s W5 public affairs program aired a segment called “Campus Giveaway” which was to become the focus of political activity that would shake the Chinese community for the next two years. The program’s blatant racism sparked a degree of public wrath unprecedented in Canada’s Chinatowns.

“Campus Giveaway” portrayed the Chinese as alien, inassimilable, insular, and competitive. As the camera panned across the faces of students of Chinese ancestry, the show charged that 100,000 foreign students had descended on Canada’s campuses, squeezing white Canadian students out of places in the professional schools.

CTV’s message was plain – the Chinese were foreigners regardless of their birthplace. Reminiscent of the chargers against early Chinese labourers, the students were accused of coming to Canada to milk the country of its wealth and resources. After using Canada’s educational facilities, these “foreigners” would flee to China and Hong Kong with professional degrees financed by the Canadian taxpayer. The Chinese were yet again pictured as transient, as exploiter, as sojourner. The opening remarks of W5 host Helen Hutchinson conveyed a message of a new Chinese threat:

Here is a scenario that would make a great many people in this country angry and resentful. Suppose your son or daughter wanted to be an engineer, or a doctor, or a pharmacist. Suppose he had high marks in high school, and that you could pay the tuition – he still couldn’t get into university in his chosen courses because a foreign student was taking his place. Well, that is exactly what is happening in this country.

The opening statement was a deliberate attempt to incite mistrust and hostility towards “foreigners.” With the camera focused on Chinese faces, there was no doubt to whom Hutchinson was referring.

To back up its allegations, W5 stated that 100,000 foreign students were crowding Canadian universities. The actual number of foreign students in Canada was 55,000 at all levels of education, including only 20,000 in full-time university studies.

Another statistical distortion involved Barbara Allan, the heroine of “Campus giveaway.” She was portrayed as an aspiring pharmacist who was rejected by the faculty of pharmacy at the University of Toronto because a foreign student had taken her place.

While Helen Hutchinson narrated Allan’s emotional outcry again foreign students, CTV’s cameras roamed the classroom searching out Chinese faces. It isolated six Chinese students: Steven Ng, Teresa Chu, Doris Ng, Faye Wong, Betty Cheung, and Jennifer Lee. Jennifer Lee was born in Canada, and the rest were citizens, thus eligible for admission to the pharmacy program. The pharmacy faculty admits Ontario residents only: visa or foreign students are barred.

Barbara Allan was also eligible for admission to the professional school. According to Dr. E.W. Stied, the associate dean of pharmacy: “If she had had the marks she said she did, she would have been accepted. But, according to our records she didn’t have those marks.”

Yet, few viewers knew the facts. To them, Barbara Allan appeared as the victim of a yellow horde taking away her “rightful” place in the university. The emotional impact of “Campus Giveaway” struck at the hearts of the white audience who could sympathize with Allan, a young woman in anguish because her ambitions were snuffed out by the villainous foreign (read “Chinese”) students.

At the heart of “Campus Giveaway” was the allegation that foreign students were taking the places of white Canadians in job-directed programs such as pharmacy, computer science, engineering, and medicine. Since the foreign faces in the report were Chinese, W5’s implication was that all students of Chinese origin were foreigners, and that Canadian taxpayers were subsidizing Chinese students – who would never be truly Canadian, regardless of their birth or citizenship.

Initial reaction to the show in Chinese communities across Canada was subdued. The workers in the Chinatowns and the professionals in the suburbs were preoccupied with their own lives. Some Chinese even missed the allegations of a few vocal students that the program was racist in tone and effect.

While Chinatown and suburbia slept, these students – both Canadian and foreign – bombarded the CTV with protest letters. Forming small study groups, the students initiated a publicity campaign to enlist wider community support. They also sought legal advice to determine whether CTV had libelled and slandered Chinese Canadians. By November, the apathy among Chinese about the W5 issue had changed to support and sympathy. This transformation was spearheaded by the students themselves, led by Norman Kwan.

The traditional representatives and leaders of the Chinese community, who had gained a high profile because of their business or political connections, shied away from the W5 controversy. Believing that the students’ talk of a libel suit would upset the status quo and endanger their own personal interests, they dismissed the students’ grievances as the fulminations of a radical group.

Preserving the status quo was not in the interests of the new group of professionals now gaining prominence in the Chinese community. One of these was a physician named Donald Chu. Later to become the chairperson of the Toronto chapter of the anti-W5 movement, Chu was driven to attack W5 because of his “belief in equal rights for all Canadians.” Part of the progressive element of the Chinese Canadian intelligentsia that was schooled in Canada, Chu and others rallied firmly behind the students, taking part in an Ad Hoc Committee Against W5.

Represented on the Ad Hoc Committee were the Association of Chinese Canadian Students and Graduates, Chinese Canadians for Mutual Advancement, Action Committee for Refugees in Southeast Asia (ACRSEA), Asianadian Resource Workshop, and the Council of Chinese Canadians in Ontario. ACRSEA was especially important in the development of a volunteer organization that would provide the human resources for the Ad Hoc Committee.

Ad Hoc Committee workers distributed pamphlets and leaflets and spoke to church gatherings, social groups, community forums, and political rallies throughout the Toronto area. They wrote letters to politicians, ministers, and newspapers. They sent representatives to show a tape of “Campus Giveaway” to influential people in various positions of power.

By the second week in December, the campaign had yielded only meagre results. The Ad Hoc Committee decided to try a different approach. The protest of ink on paper now gave way to the tactics of direct confrontation – street demonstrations and picketing.

The question of legal action had already been investigated by the students. Having called on the expertise of a Toronto lawyer with an impressive civil rights record, the students told the committee that a lawsuit could be successful.

On December 19, 1979, a rally at the Cecil Community Centre revealed that the W5 issue had united the Chinese community regardless of occupation and political persuasion. The auditorium was filled to capacity for a screening of “Campus Giveaway.” Matrons in black silk jackets, ambitious young lawyers, Chinese Benevolent Association members, aging bachelors from a forgotten era, fashionably dressed students, and small children clutching their parents’ hands crammed into the 200 seats and line the walls. From every corner of the Toronto Chinese community the W5 issue had brought out the previously uncommitted, apathetic, and the sceptical. The atmosphere was electric with the anticipation of momentous developments.

The Cecil meeting demonstrated the depth of the community’s feelings about the Ad Hoc Committee’s campaign. Many began to believe that a united community dedicated to achieving clear-cut goals could be victorious.
At its first meeting, the Ad Hoc Committee set three objectives:
• to demand a public apology from CTV and an equal opportunity to present a fair and accurate report to repair the damages done by the W5 program;
• to take the necessary steps to ensure that CTV does not air similar programs misrepresenting and damaging the image of any ethno-cultural group;
• to educate the public about the contributions of the Chinese Canadians to Canadian society.

The Cecil turnout convinced the Ad Hoc Committee to stage a peaceful demonstration in Toronto, the media heartland of the country. The plan was to hold a mass rally on January 26, 1980, in the education building on the University of Toronto campus. Then, the protesters would march on the CTV headquarters about a mile away.

The federal election then impending helped attract twenty speakers representing all the political parties to the rally. Ron Atkey, the incumbent minister of employment and immigration, did not show but his surrogate told the crowd of 1,000 which packed the auditorium that W5 “was unfair to the extreme” because “the majority of the foreign students came from Europe and the USSR.”

Politicians Bob Kaplan, Bob Rae, Peter Stollery, John Foster, and Eric Jackson denounced the CTV program. John Sewell, the mayor of Toronto, called for police and media reform “if we are to create a country where we all feel at home.” He blasted the CTV program as “a serious insult to the educational aspirations of Canadians who are not white.”

Wilson Head, president of the National Black Coalition, told the predominantly Chinese audience that “CTV did you a favour in arousing in you a need to fight back. . . . No one gives you freedom. It is won in struggle.”

George Bancroft, an education professor, got the most enthusiastic response when he said: “At the University of Toronto we give grades ranging through A, B, C, D, and F for failure. But I would not give W5 an A, B, C, D, or F. I would give it a P. . . I mean P for pollution in its facts. I mean pollution in analysis. Pollution must be cleaned up. W5’s pollution must be removed! Its pollution must be eradicated.” When he sat down, the usually subdued Chinese Canadians gave a deafening ovation.

The roused audience, inspired by these speeches, emptied into the street, where they were met by about 1,500 more protesters. Pickets were unveiled and slogans echoed in the bitterly cold air:

CTV Apologize Now!
Red, Brown, Black Yellow, and White – We Canadians Must Unite
Biased Show, W5 Got to go!

Marching four abreast, the demonstrators headed for the CTV’s national headquarters. The crowd was mostly Chinese but people from many other ethnic groups in Toronto were there to lend support. Here was multiculturalism in action – ethnic people defending the rights of all Canadians.

In front of the CTV office, Donald Chu told the protesters that the W5 program “encourages stereotyping and discrimination in a multicultural society under the guise of freedom of speech. It is irresponsible journalism that must be suppressed. We need all Canadians to support the cause and promote mutual understanding. We’ll keep up the pressure through all avenues . . . by peaceful means, of course.”

Toronto was not the only scene of picketing and protest against CTV. On the same day, more than 500 demonstrators marched in the bitter cold on CTV’s Edmonton affiliate, CFRN. The protest, lead by the Ad Hoc Committee of Chinese Canadians in Edmonton Against W5 was supported by groups from Calgary and Vancouver.

In the post-rally days Ad Hoc committees were formed in Winnipeg, Regina, Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon and Halifax. This type of social movement was unprecedented in Chinese Canadian history. The Chinese community, once stereotyped as passive and docile, was now action-oriented and conscious of its own democratic rights.

CTV was disturbed by the unfavourable publicity generated by the Chinese community across Canada, and requested a meeting. Held on February 4 and attended by the leaders of the Toronto committee and the network’s vice president and executive Don Cameron, and Lionel Lumb (producer of “Campus Giveaway”), the meeting produced nothing concrete.

On February 11, the Toronto committee and the five student plaintiffs hired lawyer Ian Scott as their negotiator. The Ad Hoc Committee’s decision to use a lawyer was a reminder to the CTV that legal action was imminent if the network did not negotiate sincerely and seriously.

While the Ad Hoc Committees across Canada filed complaints to provincial and federal human rights bodies and amassed 20,000 signatures on a petition protesting the W5 program, CTV tried to diffuse the movement by issuing a statement of “regret.”

The March 16 statement set off a national reaction among the Ad Hoc Committees. The Vancouver local committee asserted that CTV’s “regret” was “wholly inadequate to redress the damage done by the story to the Chinese Canadian community.” The major problem with the CTV statement, the Vancouver group continued, was the “no fault is admitted other than the admission that one of the statistics quoted in the story was in error, and even the admission is qualified. The impression thus created by the statement is that the Chinese Canadian community has launched a deep and vociferous nation-wide protest over a single statistical error. This is in itself condescending and insulting to all the many good Canadians who have joined the protest. The error admitted was only of the many faults of the story and it was far from the worst. . . . There is no indication in the statement that W5 really understands what was wrong with the story in the first place.”

The Toronto Ad Hoc committee decided to mount a sustained campaign against CTV and called together the fifteen committees across the country for a meeting in Toronto. The strategy behind this gathering was to demonstrate to CTV that the anti-W5 movement embraced Chinese communities throughout Canada.

While plans were going ahead for the April 18 to 20 national meeting, CTV and the Toronto Ad Hoc Committee met on April 3. Lawyer Scott restated the Ad Hoc Committee demands and called on the CTV to negotiate. At this meeting, CTV finally realized the extent of the anger of the Chinese over being labelled “foreigners” in “Campus Giveaway,” and that inaccurate statistics were not the major issue. On April 15, the CTV and the Ad Hoc Committee agreed on a settlement package. The next day, CTV issued a public apology. The network’s top executive, Murray Chercover, said that “Campus Giveaway” was largely based on extrapolations that distorted the actual statistics. . . the majority of the research data was incorrect. We were clearly wrong in our presentation of the facts and W5’s initial defence of the program.”

The program, Chercover continued, “was criticized by Chinese Canadians and the universities as racist. They were right. . . .” He confessed that “there is no doubt that the distorted statistics combined with our visual presentation, made the program appear racist in tone and effect. We share the dismay of our critics that this occurred. We sincerely apologize for the fact Chinese Canadians were depicted as foreigners, and for whatever distress this stereotyping may have caused them in the context of our multicultural society.”

Finally, Chercover said that “corrective measures have been taken. We believe we have now instituted a better system of checks and balances in respect to editorial control and presentation programs.” Marge Anthony, CTV’s public relations director, told reporters after the apology that the person chiefly responsible for the “distortions” in the segment “is no longer with us.”

The anti-W5 movement did not disappear with CTV’s apology, but evolved into the Chinese Canadian National Council for Equality, a Toronto-based organization “to safeguard the dignity and equality of all Chinese Canadians and other ethnic groups in this country.”

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